The Metro Theatre, Sydney
Friday, March 14 2008

PHOTO by RICHARD SHARMAN of Blackshadow Photography

The pre-gig $64 question - $640 if you believe Australia's rampant inflation rate and the fall-out from the US Sub-Prime Lender Crisis - was whether the low-key departure of guitarist Tony Fate was going to hamstring The BellRays. The evidence from the new album was that it probably wouldn't but informed commentary online on the live situation was decidedly thin on the ground. The proof of the pudding turned out to be in the eating and you would have been a fussy gourmand if tonight's fare wasn't filling.

Unfortunately, (cue another gastronomic pun) I missed the entree due to a prior commitment. I'd been looking forward to The Ripping Dylans since suggesting them as a opener for the I-94 Bar Records Klondike's North 40 CD launch in Sydney (and missing that due to being overseas.) In fact, I missed most of The Mess Hall set tonight as well but what I did catch of the newly-announced AMP Award winners sounded as craggily rocking as ever.

This was the first show of the third visit to Australia in two years by The BellRays and while on the subject of numbers, it was the fifth show I'd seen by them since 2004. Last year's one-off at the Gaelic Club didn't quite scale the heights of previous sightings, but that's by a matter of degrees.

In fact, they all pale against the show before that - a Tuesday night at Annandale where, in a break from Radio Birdman support duties, the tourists turned on one of the top 10 gigs I've ever seen. If they go close on The Annandale Scale tonight it'll be a blessing.

Change is no stranger to The BellRays and this line-up is close to one of their first, most notably the one that recorded "Behind The Sun" (which was a bit unfocused and soft to the touch, for mine.) Although Tony Fate did play some guitar on that one, most people know The BellRays best in the configurations that followed. The attack was more boisterous, bordering on punk, much of it recalling the best Detroit rock of the late '60s and '70s, combined with the manner of soulful vocal delivery for which thevery same geographical stamping ground was equally famous. Except they came from L.A.

Hard to believe this band surface nearly 20 years ago. But enough about yesterday.

With "Bouncing" Bob Vennum switching to guitar (just like on the new album) and making way on bass for a dead-ringer for Australian TV's diminutive Grant Denyer, this is slightly re-tooled line-up might have a little way to go to finding its true potential. It could also be marginally less powerful if only for the fact Tony Fate was a little less conventional a player than Bob, but the other side of the coin is that Vennum seems to have a better handle on the chiming, amped-back stuff, and that opens other possibilities.

Sorry I can't recall the bass player's real name (we met post-gig) and there's the odd comment that he was a bit too prominent in the mix. I can't say it was the case where I was but if it was for you, you can probably put it down to the Metro's notoriously patchy acoustics which vary from muffled to bombastic, depending on your vantage point.

"Hard Sweet & Sticky" probably isn't a known quantity for most of tonight's comfortably full house but there's a handful of oldies in the first half of the set ("Who's Sorry Now", "Pinball City") to keep most old stagers sated. The bulk of what's on offer, however, is made up of newbies if there's still an air of familiarity around the hustling groove of "Infection", the rock pop-ish "One Big Party" or the furious "Psychotic Hate Man" (which fulfills a similar role to "Snotgun" or "Detroit Breakdown") it's because the template of what The BellRays do is as distinctive as it is unique.

The more things change the more things stay the same. Craig Watters is still a monstrously good drummer and Lisa Kekaula is a singer to whom few mining this mountain called Rock and Roll can compare. How she keeps this up night after night is a wonder and something mortals like the rest of us can only ponder.

If you went out into the night unsatisfied, you're hard to please.